27 May 2015

New York K-12 Spending: Education pigs feed at the trough

Stephen Kershnar
New York School Budgets: Are voters on drugs?
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
May 25, 2015

This past week New York voters approved of the budgets for 99% of the state’s 669 school districts. This beat last year’s 98% passage rate. This is a problem.      

A little context is in order. Writing in Syracuse.com, Sarah Moses reports that in 2015 the taxpayers in the school districts paid on average (median) approximately $23,000 per student. That is not a misprint. Note this only applies to school districts where taxpayers get to vote.

New York spends more money per student than any other state. According to a 2015 study by the New York state Policy Office, Education Team, and the Division of Budget, the state spends 84% more than the national average and roughly $8,000 more per pupil per year (2012-2013 figures). This is not just a matter of its just outspending Southern states. It vastly outspent neighboring states, including New Jersey (13% more), Connecticut (20% more), and Massachusetts (38% more). Note that these states are richer in that they have significantly higher per capita and per household incomes.  

Fredonia and Dunkirk are no exceptions. In 2015-2016, Fredonia will spend $21,423 per student, which is an impressive 6.5% increase in per pupil expenditure in a single year. Dunkirk is only slightly better, spending $20,580 per student and with a 2% increase in per pupil spending.

You might think taxpayers are getting a lot for their money. You’d be wrong. The New York State Department of Education found that in 2014, roughly 64% of grades 3-8 students were not proficient in math and 69% were not proficient in English. Again, the numbers are not misprints. New York is ranked 32nd or worse in 4th and 8th grade math and English scores (bottom 40% of its class). In 2012-2013, roughly a quarter of New York’s high school students failed to graduate high school in four years, which resulted in New York being ranked 33rd in the country. Worse, only 38% of graduating seniors have scores indicating that they are ready for college and this likely overestimates overall college readiness.  

Not only is there little accountability at the district level, there is little accountability for teachers. In 2013-2014, roughly 96% of teachers were rated effective and a mere 0.7% (sadly, not a misprint) were rated ineffective. Side note: teachers can be rated neither effective nor ineffective. Does anyone seriously think that only 0.7% of workers in any industry are ineffective, especially in a government-run industry? Does this jive with your experience at work?

This result is made even more suspicious when one realizes that education majors have, on average, among the lowest SAT scores in college and that intelligence (which tends to correlate with SATs) is a fairly good predictor of job performance. I should note that many teachers did not major in education.

These sorts of figures should anger teachers as much as the rest of us. There are many highly effective and hard-working teachers and it should piss them off when their good works are reversed by ineffective and unaccountable peers.    

It’s clear that that taxpayers are paying a lot for a little. Public school apologists will quickly respond that even good teachers can’t make up for low intelligence, poor parenting, or economic and cultural deprivation. They’ll quickly add that far too much of the money goes to disabled students and this is mandated by law. They’ll likely point out that the money isn’t going toward teachers, pointing out that, according to National Center for Education Statistics, from 1970-2012, non-teaching staff have increased vastly more than the increase in students or teaching staff. This might all be true, I suspect much of it is, yet this doesn’t explain why New York students are doing worse than over half the other states or why it can’t spend at the level of Connecticut or Massachusetts.

My main problem with the level of education spending isn’t just the poor results, it’s the crushing tax burden it requires. Even if New York were to have the top ranked schools and excellent accountability, the taxes needed to pay for this level of spending are simply too much. People have projects in life. They want to get married, have children, invest in their businesses, and go on vacation. Requiring they take a few thousand that could be earmarked for these things and hand them over to the schools is unreasonable even if the schools were operating at peak efficiency. It is unreasonable for the same reason that forcing citizens to spend a few hours every week laboring at the school would be unreasonable. Many people would rather spend their time and energy elsewhere and there’s nothing wrong with that.
For some people, their tax burden is on par with their mortgage. For some retirees, the taxes painfully cut into their fixed income. For the vast majority, it’s an obnoxious imposition. The fact that parents of school age children seem to incredibly ungrateful for the amount of hours their neighbors had to work to pay the roughly $23,000 a year for their children to go to a public school just adds insult to injury.

One way to see that the spending is unreasonable is to ask whether parents of school age children would choose to spend $20,000 or more a year on their child’s education with all the bells and whistles (for example, an array of sports teams, gym, art, music, theater, nurses, school psychologists, and guidance counselors) or would they opt for a less expensive package, perhaps one that focused on the core of a successful education (for example, math, English, and history)? Almost undoubtedly they would opt for the less expensive package and if parents don’t think the extra money is worth it, neither should taxpayers.   

Taxpayers should stop giving school districts a blank check. An obvious first step would be to cut spending down to the level of neighboring states.

No comments: